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THOMAS DE QUINCEY (1785-1859)
De Quincey's life was ill-regulated, almost from his infancy, in its material conditions. His education was interrupted by changes from one school to another, and at seventeen he ran away from the grammar school of his native city, Manchester, as he himself describes in the first of our extracts from the 'Confessions.' He made his way through Wales to London, where he wandered about in the streets and mixed with the lowest classes of society. After a year of this adventurous life he became an undergraduate at Oxford, but he gave little attention to the prescribed studies, and left without taking a degree. He spent a great deal of time on German, of which he had already learnt something from a chance meeting with a tourist during his wanderings in Wales, and he obtained a good knowledge of Kant and other philosophical writers. He wrote, years afterwards: Without breach of truth or modesty I may affirm that my life has been, on the whole, the life of a philosopher: from my birth I was made an intellectual creature; and intellectual in the highest sense my pursuits and pleasures have been, even from my school-boy days.' In 1807 he paid a visit to Coleridge and escorted Mrs. Coleridge and her children to the Lake District, where he met Southey and Wordsworth, and settled down for some years, marrying the daughter of a Westmoreland farmer. In 1821 he removed to London and began his literary career by contributing the Confessions of an English Opium Eater to the London Magazine. His writings consist almost entirely of essays and reviews, written for various periodicals, and covering a wide range of subjects; many of them are on German literature, which at that time was interesting the British public. The latter part of his life was spent mainly in and about Edinburgh, where his daughter kept house for him. She says: 'He was not a reassuring man for nervous people to live with, as those nights were exceptions on which he did not set something on fire, the commonest incident being for someone to look up from book or work to say casually: Papa, your hair is on fire," of which a calm, "Is it, my love?" and a hand rubbing out of the blaze was all the notice taken.' His rooms were crowded with books and papers until they became uninhabitable and he moved elsewhere, leaving the accumulated store to the mercy of the landlady. He was incapable of managing money matters, and was often in prison for debt. He would ask for the loan of a small sum, imagining himself absolutely penniless when he had a £50 note in his pocket. His dress and his personal appearance were as odd as his habits; he was of very short stature, with a large head, and bright eyes. He had an extremely delicate ear for music and the harmonies of words; this in part accounts for the beauty of his prose style, which is molded on that of the great writers of the first half of the seventeenth century. He had a keenly analytic intellect, and some of his writings are highly philosophical and imaginative; but like Lamb, as he himself said, he had a furious love for nonsense- - headlong nonsense '—' '-'rigmaroling' his friends called it and the 'Confessions' need not be taken as literal accounts of actual fact.
FROM CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM EATER
I have often been asked how I first came to be a regular opium eater; and have suffered, very unjustly, in the opinion of my acquaintance, from being reputed to have brought upon myself all the sufferings which I shall have to record, by a long course of indulgence in this practice purely for the sake of creating an artificial state of pleasurable excitement. This, however, is a mis- 10 that I first began to use opium as an representation of my case. True it is, that for nearly ten years I did occasionally take opium for the sake of the ex
quisite pleasure it gave me: but, so long as I took it with this view, I was effectually protected from all material bad consequences, by the necessity of inter5 posing long intervals between the several acts of indulgence, in order to renew the pleasurable sensations. It was not for the purpose of creating pleasure, but of mitigating pain in the severest degree,
article of daily diet. In the twentyeighth year of my age, a most painful affection of the stomach, which I had
first experienced about ten years before,
head of a great school on an ancient foundation. This man had been appointed to his situation by College, Oxford; and was a sound, well-built 5 scholar, but (like most men, whom I have known from that college) coarse, clumsy, and inelegant. A miserable contrast he presented, in my eyes, to the Etonian brilliancy of my favorite master; and beside, he could not disguise from my hourly notice, the poverty and meagerness of his understanding. It is a bad thing for a boy to be, and to know himself, far beyond his tutors, whether in knowledge or in power of mind. This was the case, so far as regarded knowledge at least, not with myself only, for the two boys who jointly with myself composed the first form were better Grecians than ele
gant scholars, nor at all more accustomed to sacrifice to the graces. When I first entered, I remember that we read Sophocles; and it was a constant matter of triumph to us, the learned triumvirate of the first form, to see our Archididascalus (as he loved to be called) conning our lessons before we went up, and laying a regular train, with lexicon and
My father died when I was about seven years old, and left me to the care of four 20 the head-master, though not more guardians. I was sent to various schools, great and small; and was very early distinguished for my classical attainments, especially for my knowledge of Greek. At thirteen I wrote Greek with ease; and 25 at fifteen my command of that language was so great, that I not only composed Greek verses in lyric meters, but could converse in Greek fluently and without embarrassment—an accomplishment 30 grammar, for blowing up and blasting which I have not since met with in any scholar of my times, and which, in my case, was owing to the practice of daily reading_off the newspapers into the best Greek I could furnish extempore; for the necessity of ransacking my memory and invention, for all sorts and combinations of periphrastic expressions, as equivalents for modern ideas, images, relations of things, etc., gave me a compass 40 of diction which would never have been called out by a dull translation of moral essays, etc. That boy,' said one of my masters, pointing the attention of a stranger to me, that boy could harangue 45 an Athenian mob, better than you and I could address an English one.' He who honored me with this eulogy was a scholar, and a ripe and good one;' and
(as it were) any difficulties he found in the choruses; whilst we never condescended to open our books until the moment of going up, and were generally employed in writing epigrams upon his wig, or some such important matter. My two class-fellows were poor, and dependent for their future prospects at the university on the recommendation of the head-master; but I, who had a small patrimonial property, the income of which was sufficient to support me at college, wished to be sent thither immediately. I made earnest representations on the subject to my guardians, but all to no purpose. One, who was more reasonable, and had more knowledge of the world than the rest, lived at a distance; two of the other three resigned all their
of all my tutors, was the only one whom 50 authority into the hands of the fourth;
I loved or reverenced. Unfortunately for me (and, as I afterwards learned, to this worthy man's great indignation) I was transferred to the care, first of a blockhead, who was in a perpetual panic, lest I should expose his ignorance; and finally, to that of a respectable scholar, at the
and this fourth with whom I had to negotiate, was a worthy man, in his way, but haughty, obstinate, and intolerant of all opposition to his will. After a certain number of letters and personal interviews, I found that I had nothing to hope for, not even a compromise of the matter,
cently, smiled good-naturedly, returned my salutation (or rather, my valediction), and we parted (though he knew it not) for ever. I could not reverence him in5 tellectually; but he had been uniformly kind to me, and had allowed me many indulgences; and I grieved at the thought of the mortification I should inflict upon him.
from my guardian; unconditional submission was what he demanded; and I prepared myself, therefore, for other measures. Summer was now coming on with hasty steps, and my seventeenth birthday was fast approaching; after which day I had sworn within myself that I would no longer be numbered amongst school-boys. Money being what I chiefly wanted, I wrote to a woman of high rank, 10 who, though young herself, had known me from a child, and had latterly treated me with great distinction, requesting that she would 'lend' me five guineas. For upwards of a week no answer came; 15 and I was beginning to despond, when, at length, a servant put into my hands a double letter, with a coronet on the seal. The letter was kind and obliging; the fair writer was on the sea-coast, and in 20 towers of, 'drest in earliest light,'
The morning came which was to launch me into the world, and from which my whole succeeding life has, in many important points, taken its coloring. I lodged in the head-master's house, and had been allowed, from my first entrance, the indulgence of a private room, which I used both as a sleeping room and as a study. At half after three I rose, and gazed with deep emotion at the ancient
that way the delay had arisen; she enclosed double of what I had asked, and good-naturedly hinted that if I should. never repay her, it would not absolutely ruin her. Now then, I was prepared for 25 certain danger and troubles; and, if I
and beginning to crimson with the radiant luster of a cloudless July morning. I was firm and immovable in my purpose; but yet agitated by anticipation of un
my scheme; ten guineas, added to about two which I had remaining from my pocket money, seemed to me sufficient for an indefinite length of time; and at that happy age, if no definite boundary can be assigned to one's power, the spirit of hope and pleasure makes it virtually infinite.
could have foreseen the hurricane and perfect hail-storm of affliction which soon fell upon me, well might I have been agitated. To this agitation the deep peace of the morning presented an affecting contrast, and in some degree a medicine. The silence was more profound than that of midnight; and to me the silence of a summer morning is more
It is a just remark of Dr. Johnson's (and what cannot often be said of his 35 touching than all other silence, because,
the light being broad and strong, as that of noon-day at other seasons of the year, it seems to differ from perfect day, chiefly because man is not yet abroad; and thus, the peace of nature, and of the innocent creatures of God, seems to be secure and deep, only so long as the presence of man, and his restless and unquiet spirit, are not there to trouble its sanctity. I dressed myself, took my hat and gloves, and lingered a little in the room. For the last year and a-half this room had been my 'pensive citadel;' here I had read and studied through all the hours of night; and, though true it was, that for the latter part of this time I, who was framed for love and gentle affections, had lost my gaiety and happiness, during the strife and fever of contention with my guardian; yet, on the other hand, as a boy, so passionately fond of books, and dedicated to intel
remarks, it is a very feeling one), that
ing down the trunk alone, whilst I stood waiting at the foot of the last flight, in anxiety for the event. For some time I heard him descending with slow and firm 5 steps; but unfortunately, from his trepidation, as he drew near the dangerous quarter, within a few steps of the gallery, his foot slipped; and the mighty burden, falling from his shoulders, gained such in
lectual pursuits, I could not fail to have enjoyed many happy hours in the midst of general dejection. I wept as I looked round on the chair, hearth, writing-table, and other familiar objects, knowing too certainly, that I looked upon them for the last time. Whilst I write this, it is eighteen years ago; and yet, at this moment, I see distinctly, as if it were yesterday, the lineaments and expression of 10 crease of impetus at each step of the the object on which I fixed my parting gaze; it was a picture of the lovely which hung over the mantelpiece; the eyes and mouth of which were so beautiful, and the whole countenance so radiant with benignity and divine tranquillity, that I had a thousand times laid down my pen, or my book, to gather consolation from it, as a devotee from his patron saint. Whilst I was yet gazing upon it, 20 was in the utmost alarm, both on his the deep tones of clock proclaimed that it was four o'clock. I went up to the picture, kissed it, and then gently walked out, and closed the door for ever!
descent, that, on reaching the bottom, it trundled, or rather leaped, right across, with the noise of twenty devils, against the very bed-room door of the archididascalus. My first thought was that all was lost, and that my only chance for executing a retreat was to sacrifice my baggage. However, on reflection, I determined to abide the issue. The groom
So blended and intertwisted in this life are occasions of laughter and of tears, that I cannot yet recall, without smiling, an incider occurred at that time, 30 and which had nearly put a stop to the immediate execution of my plan. I had a trunk of immense weight; for, besides my clothes, it contained nearly all my library. The difficulty was to get this re- 35 Dr. would sally out of his room;
own account and on mine; but, in spite of this, so irresistibly had the sense of the ludicrous in this unhappy contretemps taken possession of his fancy, that 25 he sang out a long, loud and canorous peal of laughter, that might have wakened the Seven Sleepers. At the sound of this resonant merriment, within the very ears of insulted authority, I could not myself forbear joining in it; subdued to this, not so much by the unhappy étourderie of the trunk, as by the effect it had upon the groom. We both expected, as a matter of course, that
moved to a carrier's; my room was at
for in general, if but a mouse stirred,
of any one man; however, the groom was
Providence my guide,' I set off on foot
carrying a small parcel, with some articles of dress, under my arm; favorite English poet in one pocket, and 55 a small 12mo. volume, containing about nine plays of Euripides, in the other.
Of Atlantean shoulders, fit to bear